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Gender roles in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch

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Edited: May 18, 2015, 5:27am Top

Now the first thing to note about this series is that the narrator is a military starship AI trapped in a human body. This means the narrator is gender blind. After all what relevance has gender got to a starship?

So that the reader comprehends the AI 's confusion over gender a nongendered language of which there are several real world examples is used. This combines with the narrator's inability to see or describe gender differences and the disconnection of the writing defaulting to a feminine grammatical gender to muddy the readers own perception of gender.

And so the question are there any characters that do not act or we suspect do not act in a way we consider gender normative?

May 18, 2015, 8:48am Top

I think my problem with both books so far is that I end up with no idea what gender any of the characters are, which is confusing. I'm sure most of them do have conversations without the narrator and hence receive a specific pronoun, but it only happens once or twice and then I've forgotten, and am left confused.

May 18, 2015, 8:54am Top

The gender-blindness isn't just because the protagonist is a ship's AI, the entire Radchaai Empire, or at least that part which is properly civilised, that which is Radchaai proper, is non-gendered.

May 18, 2015, 9:29am Top

>3 andyl:

The Radch aren't non-gendered; from the little we can tell, individual Radch do have gender and it seems to be more or less gender-binary. The Radch language is not gendered (neither pronouns nor other aspects of the language indicate gender), and Radch society does not have strong gender roles about who can do what, but there's been nothing to indicate that individual Radch are agender.

To get back to the first post, gender-normative behavior depends on a society with gender role restrictions, I think; my short hair would once have been non-gender-normative, but currently it's very weakly if at all gender-marked. If there aren't any such rules at all, gender normativity is a more difficult thing to get at. (You'd still have trans folk, of course, that's a different issue.)

May 18, 2015, 9:58am Top

Breq says that Radch society does not to have strong gender roles but Breq is not I think a competent judge. All societies lie about themselves. and Breq who cannot tell males from female even in societies that embrace gender differences is not the one to spot the lies .Certainly the differences are minimised professionally. but I think that socially they are far more important than Breq suspects.

May 18, 2015, 10:25am Top

>5 SimonW11:

What makes you say that? I don't have the books with me at the moment but would be happy to discuss particular examples you see of enforced gender roles in Radch society.

May 18, 2015, 11:52am Top

The Radch society is culturally nongendered (although recently annexed planets/stations resist this, like with the Valskayan workers on Athoek). Not just the language but also jobs, child rearing, household arrangements, fashion (clothes/hair/cosmetics), and all other cultural divisions are based on factors other than gender. Therefore gender (the cultural construct) doesn't exist in Radch space, even though individual Radchaai are mostly binary in terms of physical/chromosomal sex. But no one ties their sex to their identity, so trans people (in this case Radchaai who want surgical or hormonal alteration to their bodies) would likely handle their transitions very differently, and presumably wouldn't change names or personal fashion (since those are unrelated to sex).

Breq makes a comment to Strigan in the first book that Radchaai pick partners based on who they are attracted to (with physical sex/orientation being only one factor in that; we don't know whether the lovers we see are opposite- or same-sex) and if they want children but are the same physical sex, then they get a clone. (Raughd Denche in Ancillary Sword is a clone of Fosyf Denche and doesn't have a second parent.) All parents are called "mother," regardless of whether they contributed egg, sperm, or cells for cloning. (Also, because Breq is completely oblivious, she starts her comment to Strigan by saying "Radchaai reproduce the same way everyone else does" so it's easy to miss that the end of the sentence is something like, "and if neither partner has a uterus available, they go to the doctor for a clone" ... I'm paraphrasing here because I don't have the book to hand.)

Of course, the humans make fewer mistakes than Breq does with non-Radchaai. Breq makes mistakes mostly because, as a spaceship and native to the Radch, she doesn't assume that gender is tied to biological sex and she picks pronouns based on cultural cues she doesn't understand (instead of defaulting to cisgender). Whereas even the Radchaai humans know that non-Radchaai equate sex with gender, unless told otherwise.

The point of using the nongendered language and the social-cue blind narrator is to highlight that it really doesn't matter which character is which sex, because their personalities and behavior are based on other factors. Of course, whether it succeeds as a narrative device for any given reader is a different question. But it's meant to be disorienting to draw attention to how our own society enforces gender norms in behavior. It took me a few chapters to get used to it, and if I try to picture characters in my head I mostly see them as androgynous, except for the handful of characters where a sex is given, like Seivarden.

May 18, 2015, 1:17pm Top

English is non-gendered to some extent - we don't, for example, change most adjectives to agree with the nouns they describe. Nor do we decline our verbs to account for gender, unlike many languages (such as Arabic). All Ancillary Justice does is flatten all pronouns and terms which explicitly describe sex to one gender. And then uses "she" to further obfuscate because "he" is used so much as a default. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand actually does a better job of commenting on social gender than Leckie's novels.

May 18, 2015, 2:05pm Top

>8 iansales: Having read both Justice and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand I agree Stars does a better job but that the disorientation is proportionally acute (and proportionally satisfying, for my part).

May 18, 2015, 2:51pm Top

Leckie discusses her pronoun choices in this interview.

So, my original goal was to portray a society that genuinely did not care about gender. Using a single pronoun for everyone was just one part of that, but the more I played with it, the more interesting the effect was. Ultimately, of course, using “she” for everyone doesn’t actually convey gender neutrality, and I realized that pretty quickly. But I think...

I have not read a single book by Delaney, yet I'm planning on reading everything he's ever written. He has quite the good reputation.

May 18, 2015, 3:17pm Top

I've only read a couple of Delany's works, although I've been trying to find more at my library (Loved Nova, not as engaged with Dhalgren). Babel-17 has been on my wishlist for forever, and I'll add Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.

I think I like Leckie's treatment (and again, not saying it works for everyone) mostly because the gender disorientation is only one aspect of the larger theme (where personal identity comes from), and none of it is prompted by/framed with a romance.

May 19, 2015, 6:33am Top

>1 SimonW11: I guess that Leckie was trying to break through any expectations of gender norms, but it only confused me.

>7 Euryale: good analysis. I think the middle part of that quote was go to the reproduction clinic (I guess for in-vitro fertilization or some other way) or stop using contraception, finally cloning.

The other thing that you note that troubles me is that the Radchaai are human, and how long really would it take for gender to truly not matter. Based on Leckie's own quotes, it's as if everyone is bisexual, as some people would assert! Is this plausible? How did this happen, did a sect of bisexuals decide to form their own society, or what happened to cause this? That aspect is never explained.

I need to read more Delany, read his autobiography when I was 16, loved it.

Has anyone read Lock in? The main character uses an android body to interact with the world, while she is "locked in" in a coma like state in her body. The gender of the character is never mentioned, but apparently male readers mostly assume male, but females mostly assume she's female. I'm using female pronouns as I thought she was female! (I'm male) - I listened to the audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton, I just thought he wasn't doing a good female voice.

May 19, 2015, 8:44am Top

Haha, now that you mention it about everyone seeming bisexual, I realize I had rationalized it as Radchaai being like the Discworld dwarves, where one step in any given courtship is figuring out the other person's sex and whether it's compatible with your orientation. (I was rereading the Watch novels when Ancillary Justice came out, and didn't even notice I'd transferred that bit over.) I assumed that was one of the details Breq was oblivious to or didn't find worthy of mentioning and read right over it.

May 19, 2015, 10:07am Top

Perhaps the series is a sequel to Left Hand of Darkness and the Radchaai are all originally from Gethen.

May 19, 2015, 10:22am Top

You're confusing biological gender and grammatical gender. The Radchaai could be entirely heterosexual, they just happen to use the same pronoun and grammatical gender for everyone. For example, in Arabic there is a third person plural male pronoun and a third person plural female pronoun. But if a group has at least one man in it, then you use the third person plural male pronoun - it doesn't mean all the women in the group have magically become men or turned lesbian.

May 19, 2015, 11:34am Top

>13 Euryale:

I don't think we should assume that the purely human Radchaai necessarily have difficulty figuring out each other's biological sex; Breq complains about how the indicators vary from place to place, but that doesn't mean they aren't present.

>15 iansales:

It would be really interesting to see what sorts of changes need to be made both to translate the books into a much more strongly-gendered language or into one that, like Radchaai, lacks grammatical gender.

May 19, 2015, 12:44pm Top

>16 lorax: lorax: No, I just meant that Radchaai aren't necessarily bisexual, they just know to look for physical secondary sex characteristics (breasts/wider hips versus facial hair/wider shoulders) based on their preference, rather than clothes or makeup. Breq wouldn't notice (or more likely, wouldn't care) that they do this. And because I was reading Discworld and AJ concurrently, I just mentally carried over the dwarf joke to the Radchaai. (I understand I may be the only one who is amused by the comparison.)

May 19, 2015, 1:50pm Top

had not read either book in while but was reminded of them when I preordered the third and wrote this to clarify my thoughts. thanks they are a lot less muddy now.

May 19, 2015, 3:18pm Top

>17 Euryale: No, I got the joke. Mind you making jokes in this kind of thread could lead to all sorts of divigations like a branching thread discussing sexual dimorphism in Tolkein's dwarves.

May 20, 2015, 4:02am Top

I wonder if sexual compatibility is an important consideration I suspect obligations to your house would frequently outweigh them.

May 20, 2015, 8:10am Top

And to pick up on Ian's point about grammatical gender, the gender used for nouns in any given language may not relate to gender perceptions in the real world. For instance, in German the word for girl, 'das Mädchen', is neuter. Other words in German defy any attempt to rationalise their gender. http://www.lsa.umich.edu/german/hmr/Grammatik/Gender/Gender.html is an interesting guide on the subject for non-German speakers, though the large number of exceptions make for thoughtful examples. Also see http://german.about.com/library/weekly/aa042098.htm (my examples are from German because it's the gendered language I know the best.)

Edited: May 20, 2015, 9:17am Top

Linguists now think that gender in language was acquired by random events in the evolution of a language and not by any social factors. Since one can have different words for the same object and these words can have different genders, implying a gender-political significance to this is problematic. Obviously job titles (profesor, profesora) can have such significance but stretching this to a whole language harks back to out-dated theories that suggest languages influence social mores rather than the other way around.

May 20, 2015, 9:23am Top

>22 justifiedsinner: English has dropped a lot of gendered job titles - aviatrix, proprietrix - and some are in the process of being dropped - who uses actress any more? - except where gendering job implies status, eg, chef and cook, secretary and office manager... Except, of course, those job titles which include the word -woman or -man, such as policewoman, although in many cases there are non-gendered alternatives, like constable, trooper or officer...

May 20, 2015, 2:27pm Top

If anyone is interested in reading a book where the power in gendered language is flipped, I recommend Egalia's Daughters. The setup is a matriarchal society rather than a patriarchal society, and instead of male being the base gender in gendered language, female is. So we have "wim" and "menwim", "fele" and "mafele". It gets a bit too radical at the end for me and it's from the 70's, but it's still interesting.

It was originally written in Norwegian and Worldcat lists English, German, and Italian translations. I expect the effect is quite different in each language.

May 20, 2015, 2:40pm Top

I read Egalia's Daughters in the 70s when I was perhaps 15 but I found it contrived and even missing the point. I had been looking forward to an elegant and ruthless feminist satire, but I thought it dull and flat. Perhaps I should reread it 35 years later.

May 20, 2015, 2:51pm Top

I consider a chef to be someone who manages cooks. A chef with no staff is an affectation.

May 20, 2015, 4:14pm Top

>25 anglemark:

Which language did you read it in?

I read it in English quite recently. I do expect that my appreciation of it has more to do with the background I'm coming from than the actual quality of the book though. I'd never thought very much about how sexism is embedded into the English language before, and I attributed a lot of the places where the book fell flat to its age.

Edited: May 21, 2015, 2:10am Top

>27 Settings: English is actually quite a non-sexist language. Unfortunately, it's widely-spoken in sexist societies. There are more "sexist" languages - French, German and Arabic have male and female grammatical genders, but Dutch has common and neuter, for example.

May 20, 2015, 6:15pm Top

>28 iansales:

I'm not sure how the original (Norwegian has grammatical gender, yes?) or the Italian or German translations would work. As justifiedsinner was just saying, the grammatical gender of words isn't based on social factors. I'm unaware if the languages you've listed are actually more "sexist" than English or how one would rank such a thing.

With English, I think English speakers rarely think of our language as being male-centric. We know it, but we often think of it as a very slight bias. It takes a book like Egalia's Daughters, by flipping it, to show that it isn't so minor. Whether or not this has social importance is another question, but it's still interesting.

In English, using the words wim/menwim to mean woman and man flips which gender is the base. This does not appear to work in German (Frau/Mann), Italian (Donna/Uomo), or even the original Norwegian (Kvinne/Mann). It's likely a translator's choice found only in English, although I don't know what the translator could be imitating.

As an aside, Wikipedia says that when the precursor of woman, "wīfmann" was used, "mann" was gender-neutral, and "wēr" meant man. Only later did "mann" come to mean only men.

May 20, 2015, 7:46pm Top

An interesting shift occurred in English with the titles of married women. Even back in the 50's a married woman would be Mrs. Robert Jackson, say. This evolved into Mr. Winifred Jackson, Ms W. Jackson, and finally Winne Jones who's married to that fellow Jackson.

May 21, 2015, 2:12am Top

>28 iansales: I put "sexist" in qotes deliberately :-) I meant that French, German had Arabic had grammatical genders and strict rules on declining verbs and adjectives according to gender. I didn't speculate on their origin or impact on speakers.

May 21, 2015, 3:02am Top

>27 Settings: I read it in Swedish. I just found much of it silly, with penis bras and mechanically exchanging every single syllable -man- with something female. I just felt that wasn't the problem with the patriarchy. But thinking about it, I think I might also have been to young for it, though I was a confirmed feminist also at fifteen.

May 21, 2015, 3:33am Top

>32 anglemark: Whatever you do, don't read Regiment of Women. It's appallng.

Edited: Dec 22, 2016, 3:31pm Top

Possible Spoiler for those not up to chapter 7
I think youre correct Euryale especialy since the Genitalia Festival indicates that there are biological males and Breqs discusdion with Hetnys suggests that there are biological males in Radch society but overall femininity seems to be the leading gender in the Radch Empire but if Breq is "Gender Blind" and falls back on female pronouns even when describing other Radchaai characters choice of gender pronouns in their dialogue, which seems unlikely, would argue otherwise!

Im not sure used the right grammar for that long sentence but hopefully you understand my point.😅

Edited: Dec 22, 2016, 3:49pm Top

I love the series so far😘 and have been spending the last hour scouring the web for clarification on the whole gender/pronouns/bio sex theme of the book
I love Sci Fi books 🚀📚🔬📚👽📚🤖📚🌌
If you like this series check out Old Mans War by John Scalzi its a great scifi series with praise for the Author being the rightful heir to the Heinlein throne!👑

Dec 22, 2016, 3:52pm Top

Welcome to LT, LittleMili!

This is a bit of an old-fashioned place in some respects; since it's a reading-oriented site, we prefer to communicated primarily via text rather than emoji. Yours are mostly decorative, so not 'speaking' emoji doesn't interfere with understanding, but it isn't standard communication style here.

I've read only Old Man's War of the series, and while it was pleasant enough it really wasn't my thing; I'm curious as to why you think straight military SF in the Heinlein vein would appeal particularly to fans of the Radchaai books? I can't stand Heinlein, so it's a good thing I read Scalzi's blog regularly and thus that comparison isn't as alienating to me as it might otherwise be.

Dec 22, 2016, 3:52pm Top

>35 LittleMili: Glad you're loving it! On rereading the trilogy, I'm sure not all of the characters are as indifferent to biological sex as Breq is (and not just among the recently annexed groups). They may not differentiate sex/gender by pronoun or social roles or fashion, but not everyone is bisexual. Breq, as an AI, is just even less interested in tracking biological sex or people's cues than "human" Radch citizens. I keep finding more ways in which Breq is unreliable at dealing with personal identity, and not just her own.

Dec 23, 2016, 5:45pm Top

>35 LittleMili: Hi Mili,and welcome. Nice to see you jumping right in and participating.That's what we like to see.:0)
I quite like Scalzi,action adventure that doesnt take itself too seriously.I have The Last Colonycoming up,probably in January.
I look forward to seeing you add more books to your libray,when you have time.Look forward to your take on Heinlein,who tends to divide us in the group,some love him,some loathe him,some only like his juveniles etc,but we welcome everyone's imput,so have fun.

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